Celebrated Meatpacking District French bistro Pastis is on blast for allegedly fostering a discriminatory workplace environment and trying to misuse its federal Paycheck Protection Program loan money.
A former Pastis sous chef filed a complaint with the Law Enforcement Bureau of the NYC Commission on Human Rights in October 2020 alleging he was discriminated against based on his gender, and that he was terminated from his position when he called out the discrimination. He alleges that his termination was also in part due to him bringing attention to the restaurant’s alleged attempts to misuse PPP funds.
Over a six-month period, between August 2019 and January 2020, former sous chef Miguel Samanez alleges that he was reprimanded by Pastis head chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley for trying to discipline women staffers at the restaurant for being late to work. Samanez started working at the restaurant in March 2019, and Meek-Bradley assumed the role of head chef at the restaurant in August 2019, according to the complaint. Samanez alleges that his authority was being ignored because he is a man.
In one such instance of alleged discrimination, Samanez says in the complaint, he wrote up a line cook for allegedly arriving late for the fifth time that week toward the end of January. The line cook allegedly responded by saying, “what is wrong with you, you need to get laid.” In that instance, Samanez says he wrote up the line cook for tardiness and insubordination and asked her to go home.
Upon hearing of the write-up, Meek-Bradley reportedly forced Samanez to remove the disciplinary action and allegedly told him that “female employees should get the benefit of doubt when it came to discipline within the company,” according to the complaint, and reportedly added that she didn’t want any trouble from Pastis’s human resources department. Separately, Meek-Bradley also barred Samanez from writing up four other women staffers at the restaurant, he alleges in his complaint. Meek-Bradley did not immediately return a request for comment.
In a statement to Eater, a spokesperson for Starr Restaurant Group praised Meek-Bradley, but said the restaurant was investigating the claims. “Marjorie Meek-Bradley has proactively and diligently worked to break down gender barriers and create an environment of equality, not just in the restaurant but in the industry overall,” part of the statement reads. “We do, however, take all claims of discrimination with extreme gravity and are investigating the complaint thoroughly.”
Around March 19, 2020, Samanez, along with the rest of the Pastis staff, was furloughed following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state-mandated shutdown of indoor dining in NYC, according to the complaint. In early May, Samanez claims he received a call from Meek-Bradley telling him that Pastis had been approved for a PPP loan and that he should inform staffers that they would soon be receiving a paycheck while they were furloughed.
Meek-Bradley also reportedly asked Samanez to find “extra people” outside of the restaurant to put on payroll so the restaurant could disburse more of its PPP funds. While the PPP guidelines have changed slightly with each new batch of funding, at the time that Pastis — which is owned by the Starr restaurant group — received its loan, in April or May 2020, it would likely have had to put 60 percent of the loan amount toward payroll.
Samanez alleges that the restaurant didn’t have enough staffers to meet that threshold, without which the otherwise forgivable loan would have to be returned at a 1 percent interest rate, a tall order for most restaurants that haven’t seen any kind of profit due to the pandemic. Meek-Bradley then allegedly asked him to hire additional employees to meet the threshold to avoid the loan amount from accruing interest. Samanez claims he refused to find the additional employees, but told other furloughed staffers that they would be getting paid soon.
A couple of weeks after that call, Meek-Bradley then allegedly called Samanez a second time asking to go back to all the same staffers and tell them they wouldn’t be receiving any PPP funds as the restaurant’s loan was declined. Samanez alleges that he knew this to be untrue and then raised the concerns first with Meek-Bradley, saying he was worried about doing something illegal by informing staffers that the restaurant had no PPP funds to distribute. He then reportedly raised these concerns with the restaurant’s payroll supervisor and chef de cuisine. The former reportedly said she would look into it but didn’t take any action and the latter reportedly asked him not to inquire about PPP funds further.
Though the restaurant group did not individually refute each of the allegations, the spokesperson for Starr said in a statement that “the restaurant used 100% of the PPP loan proceeds for permissible purposes in strict compliance with the parameters of the loan. Any claims to the contrary are patently false and the restaurant will vehemently defend against any assertions of misuse.”
A month later, on June 12, Samanez says he received a call from Starr Restaurant Group’s regional manager saying his job had been terminated. Samanez claims that he pushed back, saying he was fired for raising concerns about alleged gender discrimination and misuse of PPP funds. The regional manager reportedly ignored these concerns and re-stated that Samanez had been fired.
“I believe I was subjected to a hostile work environment, harassed, improperly disciplined and/or fired in a discriminatory manner because I raised protected concerns related to illegal activity within the company,” part of the complaint reads.
Separately, Samanez alleges that he was also discriminated against for taking paternity leave. At the time of Samanez’s hiring, his partner was pregnant with their child, according to the complaint. At that time he requested to take paid family leave later on during his employment, when he became eligible to do so under New York laws. That happened in February 2020, and Samanez requested to take the month of March off. His request was approved, but he alleges in his complaint that taking paid time off contributed to his eventual firing.
Samanez is seeking damages including “lost compensation and benefits,” along with a host of other damages and attorney’s fees. After a complaint is filed with the HRC, it is sent to the party named in it, giving them a chance to respond. Starr Restaurant Group confirmed that it had filed a response with the HRC, but a spokesperson for the group declined to share the response citing confidentiality. “The restaurant is vehemently defending itself against the allegations raised in the complaint,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to Eater.
Samanez will have a second chance to rebut that response. The law enforcement bureau may then try to refer the case to its mediation department for the two sides to reach a potential settlement. The law enforcement bureau also has the option of either dismissing the case or sending it to trial at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH). A spokesperson for the HRC declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing investigation, but confirmed that the case had been filed.
Take a look at the full complaint below: